Bacteria and the Gym


A report by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) released in June highlights that more than half of infectious disease outbreaks happen to those involved in competitive sports like running, cycling, and weightlifting. “Skin infections in athletes are extremely common,” the NATA report reveals. Why?

New York Times health columnist Jane E Brody says in articles, “Be Sure Exercise Is All You Get at the Gym,” that an athlete’s skin is becomes extremely vulnerable to contact (or even indirect contact) with other people because of sweat and abrasions.

Staph infections flourish in warm, humid places (human sweat) and in crowded areas.



NATA’s report in the Journal of Athletic Training lists several fungal, viral and bacterial infections that cause skin infections (staphylococcus aureus – staph infections) commonly passed between athletes at the gym:

  • Fungal Infections (including athlete’s foot [PC1] and ringworm)
    • Tinea capitis: gray scaly patches and mild hair loss
    • Tinea corporis: round scaly plaque with raised borders
    • Viral Infections
      • Herpes simplex: clusters of lesions can be found on the head, face, neck or other extremities
        • Herpes type 1 (HSV-1 or oral herpes)
        • Herpes type 2 (HSV-2 or genital herpes)
  • Molluscum contagiosum: flesh- or light pink-colored pearly papules that rupture
  • Bacterial Infections
    • Impetigo: blisters that rupture into scaly or crusty erosions
      • Bullous impetigo
      • Nonbullous impetigo
  • Folliculitis: papules and pustules a the base of hair follicles (in particular in places that have been shaved, taped or abraded)
  • Furuncles, carbuncles: tender areas around the hair follicles that, over several days, develop a redden nodular swelling; carbuncles show as masses of furuncles
  • MRSA: small pustules that develop into larger pustules or abscesses with areas of erythema and some dead tissue

Men’s Fitness magazine listed several other germs that can be easily passed at the gym:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV): warts on genitals or on throat and mouth; if untreated, HPV can cause certain cancers
  • Klebsiella: commonly causes urinary tract infections and pneumonia
  • E. coli: common causes are cramps, diarrhea, vomiting and can cause pneumonia
  • Candida: a yeast-like fungus that can cause athlete’s foot, ringworm, jock itch in men and yeast infections in women
  • Streptococcal bacteria: typically causes upper respiratory infections
  • Influenza (flu): a virus that causes an infection in the nose, throat and lungs



An article in the New York Daily News names cardiovascular machines (like exercise bikes used for running indoors) “used by many people in quick succession” and equipment that is passed around (such as dumbbells and mats used for cross training) as the equipment that poses the highest risk of spreading disease. So how do you protect yourself?

First of all, athletes who know they have infections should stay away from the gym, including the pool, and avoid competing. The NATA report says even covering skin infections will not prevent their spread. Athletes should not return to the gym, pool or competing until they have been treated and deemed noninfectious.

Dr. Glenn D. Braunstein lists tips on how to protect yourself from harmful bacteria, fungus and viruses in the article “Extreme Hygiene: Infectious Germs are Bulking Up at the Gym.” The article in the New York Times by Jane E. Brody points to the NATA report, which recommends doing the following to protect yourself from staph (or skin) infections and other diseases at the gym:

  • Make sure you and your gym equipment are clean. Always assume you have been exposed.
  • Wash hands immediately before and after using gym equipment. (Tips on hand-washing hygiene.)[PC2]
  • Shower immediately after every practice and game with antibacterial liquid soap, and make sure you wash your whole body. Put on clean clothes.
  • Keep clean clothes separate from where you keep dirty gym clothes. Wash the dirty-clothes bag occasionally.
  • Change socks and underwear daily.
  • After a showering, dry armpits, groin and between toes completely (tip: use the blow-dyer on low heat to dry feet). (More tips on avoiding fungal infections.)[PC3]
  • Inquire with the gym about what cleaners they use. They should be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, and there should be a cleaning schedule that occurs each day. Antibacterial wipes and/or spray bottles should be provided at your gym (and used!).
  • Exercise mats should be cleaned between classes. It may be safest to bring your own.
  • Keep your own blisters and cuts covered with secure bandages. Covering with clothing is not enough.
  • Don’t share towels, bar soap, shower slippers, mats or any other items that come in contact with bare skin.
  • Don’t expose bare feet to either wet or dry surfaces. (More tips for avoiding the spread of athlete’s foot and other fungal infections[PC4] .)
  • Wash gym clothes as soon as possible after wearing them preferably in hot water. A sport detergent (such as 2Toms Stink Free Sports Detergent) can help get the smell out of stinky gym clothes..
  • If no cleaning agents are available, at least use a towel between you and unwashed equipment.